Public, private sectors spar over best way to help homeless as time runs out for using never-opened former Multnomah County Jail

PMG PHOTO: JIM REDDEN - Wapto Jail owner Jordan Schnitz speaks at a Thursday morning press conference. Behind him are (from Left): Hayden Island Neighborhood Network chair Jeff Geisler; Volunteers of America of Oregon President Kay Yoran; and Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner.
The probable failure of efforts to use the never-opened Wapato Jail to help the homeless has exposed a simmering dispute between the idea's supporters and the existing official approach to ending homelessness.

Backers of using the never-used jail in North Portland for the homeless made a last-ditch plea for public and private help at the facility on Thursday, Oct. 10. The Portland/Multnomah County homeless service organization opposed it.

Developer Jordan Schnitzer, who bought the county property last year for $5 million, told reporters last Thursday that he will begin demolishing the facility soon unless funding is found to convert it into a residential treatment center.

Schnitzer made the announcement at a news conference with Volunteers of America of Oregon President Kay Toran, who has proposed a Community Wellness Center conversion. But her organization has not been able to raise the tens of millions of dollars necessary to transform and operate it.

After the news conference, Multnomah County issued a statement that said, "We're glad that Jordan Schnitzer has reached the conclusion that he can't afford to warehouse people in this remote jail."

Schnitzer is a well-known philanthropist who has supported many charitable causes.

"Warehousing the homeless" previously was denounced at a Sept. 25 news conference attended by Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and representatives of many homeless and other social service agencies in the county.

That county statement prompted Oregon Harbor of Hope, the nonprofit organization founded by developer Homer Williams that supports the Wapato plan, to issue its statement calling the "Housing First" approach to ending homelessness favored by the county a "failed policy."

Kafoury has repeatedly said that the key to ending homelessness is to provide housing to the homeless, along with caseworkers for those who need the most help. But the most recent federally required count found the number of unsheltered homeless in the county increased by 22% since 2017. Overall, homelessness was down 4%, however.

"'Housing First' as the principal part of the solution is a flawed and seriously incomplete understanding of homelessness and housing," said former Portland Development Commission head and current Harbor of Hope director Don Mazziotti, arguing that governments cannot afford to build enough housing fast enough to keep up with the increasing number of regional residents losing their homes. He said the existing Wapato Jail could house 500 or more people right now, with separate facilities for men, couples, and women with children.

PMG FILE PHOTO - The never-used former Wapato Jail in North Portland.

The county and city fund other services, too, through the Joint Office of Homeless Services. In its statement, the county argued that it and the city already had doubled the number of shelter beds and people living in affordable units in recent years. The office also provides rent assistance to those at risk of becoming homeless.

"We're not willing to take funding from those families getting rent assistance, from the people in apartments and shelters, and kick them to the street, just to throw good money after bad," said the statement, referring to the $58 million cost of building the Wapato Jail.

But Mazziotti replied that the county and city are largely targeting just one segment of the homeless population, the chronically homeless who need the most help, and are not providing enough shelter and housing for the thousands of other people who need it or will need it, even temporarily.

"We have a deficit of 50,000 affordable units, according to Metro. The units were not built, but costs and rents continued to rise," said Mazziotti, who noted the regional governments are currently spending $200 a square foot on their current affordable housing projects.

In its statement, the county said it agrees treatment and services can change lives, and it challenged Harbor of Hope to support the Downtown Behavioral Health Resource Center it is planning. But those at the Thursday news conference — which included Mazziotti, Williams and Portland Police Union President Daryl Turner — were dubious about the plans for the center, which would be housed in a long-vacant office building the county bought for $5.8 million earlier this year at 333 S.W. Park Ave. The county has yet to announce the final costs for renovating and operating the center.

Ironically, the disagreement erupted shortly after Williams' group, the county and the city completed their first joint project, the Navigation Center and homeless shelter that recently opened near the southern end of the Broadway Bridge. Up to 100 homeless people can live there at a time and receive medical, counseling and placement services from on-site providers. It was built for Harbor of Hope for around $3.5 million. The city and county are paying its operating expenses.

"Calling out Jordan Schnitzer, Volunteers of America, Oregon Harbor of Hope, the Portland Police Association and private-sector solutions is nonsense and nonproductive. The absence of public-sector leadership on the issue is stunning. And the community knows it," Mazziotti said.

You can find a link to a previous Portland Tribune story on the issue in the online version.

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